Belarus Forces Plane Diversion, Arrests Journalist

International governments have roundly condemned the Belarusian government, after a commercial flight was forced to land and a journalist was arrested in Minsk last Sunday.

The 27 members of the European Union bloc have decided to ban Belarusian airlines from travelling over Europe, while U.S President Joe Biden called the forced landing and arrest “outrageous” and declared they were “shameful assaults on both political dissent and the freedom of the press.” The arrested journalist, Roman Protasevich, was travelling on a Ryanair flight from Athens, Greece, to Vilnius, Lithuania on May 23rd. As the plane was flying over Belarusian airspace, a fighter jet intercepted and forced it to land, claiming there was a bomb threat. Passengers reported Mr Protasevich as appearing “super scared.” His father, Dmitri Protasevich, said on Monday that he was “afraid to even think about it, but its possible he could be beaten and tortured.” Belarusian state media said that President Lukashenko, who has been in charge of the country since 1994, had personally given the order for the plane to be diverted. A video of Mr Protasevich has been released by the Belarusian government, in which he claims he is being treated fairly, and had confessed to organizing mass riots. Many activists fear that this confession has been forced, as such methods of video testimonial are considered common in Belarus. Regional governments have stated their intention to go further in punishing Belarus, as Latvian Foreign Minister Edgar Rinkevics said that he would seek “harsh economic sanctions” in order to combat such a “direct attack against Europe.”

This action by the Belarusian government clearly violates international norms, and the EU have been remarkably quick to respond. Whilst the Lithuanian government has taken point on investigating the incident, particularly in the identification of two other passengers who also left the plane with Protasevich, the EU must be prepared to impose harsher sanctions on Belarus – and if necessary, Russia, who some are pointing to as a possible collaborator. While it is far too early to determine if Belarus had acted alone or not, the actions would not seem out of place for President Lukashenko. Considered to be Europe’s “last dictator”, he and many of his officials are already under EU sanctions imposed due to their repression of political opponents. Lukashenko has been leading a crackdown since winning the election last August, a result which many regard as rigged. While the rapid reaction of the EU is therefore welcome, it is long overdue. Many Belarusians have spent much of the past year living in fear of reprisals for speaking out, and this is merely the latest – and boldest – attempt by Lukashenko to flex his authority. The weak claim of a bomb threat – purported to be from the Palestinian militant group Hamas, who have denied any involvement – does not hold up to much scrutiny. The group has had no prior history of mounting any operations outside of Israel and the Palestinian region, nor are they believed to be capable of such an action.

The near-unprecedented action by Belarus in making up a bomb threat to force a commercial flight to land for political ends deserves more than slap-on-the-wrist sanctions. However, it is worth noting that too heavy-handed an approach might well drive Lukashenko – already staunchly within Russia’s sphere of influence – further into the arms of Russian President Vladimir Putin. The Kremlin has been pushing for Belarus to be absorbed into the Russian state, something which the two countries agreed to in 1999 but which has not yet been implemented. The risk of such an action – without the sanction or backing of the Belarusian people – would be exceptionally detrimental to the right of self-determination in the region.

 

Henry Whitelaw

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